I am too young to have lived through so many coups.
This was what I told myself on May 20 when army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law in Thailand. It was a coup d’état in disguise. The point of a martial law was for the military to take over the governing of the country. The junta ordered a near total ban on media and forced various media outlets to present only military-approved news. Thais were also instructed to stay home and abide by the curfew. No gathering of more than five people. No news. Nothing to see on TV but the repeated playing of military songs from the 1970s, designed to evoke patriotic emotions. So when the military formally staged a coup two days later, few of us were taken by surprise.
Why was there a coup? And why did Thailand have so many coups?
It was the 19th coup attempt, with 12 successful, since the country transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The most recent coup was triggered by a political impasse and ongoing unrest that began in the summer of 2013. The majority government of Yingluck Shinawatra, which came to power through the ballot in 2011, sought to give a blanket amnesty to all involved in the political conflict in Thailand over the past decade. Anti-government forces saw this as a way for Yingluck to vindicate her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was dislodged from power in the previous 2006 coup for alleged corruption, cronyism, and posing a grave threat to the revered monarchy. The amnesty bill helped to aligne various opposition groups under the rubric of a loosely organized protest movement, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
The Democrat Party took the opportunity to capitalize on the resurgence of anti-Shinawatra sentiment and took the reign leading the PDRC. The Democrats hadn’t won an election since 1992, despite being the second largest party in Thailand; thus becoming a protest movement full-time could be a way for them to regain political power. The gamble paid off and the PDRC successfully contributed to the annulment of the February 2014 election, the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck, and prolonged protests in Bangkok for the past several months. After numerous failed attempts at negotiation among the pro- and anti-government elites, the military intervened to break the deadlock in Thai politics.
The military is one of the most powerful political institutions in Thailand. Much of the country’s contemporary history was under military rule, punctuated by rather short-lived and unstable democratic governments. Military coups used to occur with such frequency that most
Thais did not bother to count or care. Democracy had not been pretty for Thais either. During the longest uninterrupted democratic rule, from 1992 to 2006, this Southeast Asian nation saw five prime ministers, four elections and one coup d’état. Through it all, Thai politics was marred by factionalism, nepotism, and corruption. With the exception of the Thaksin Administration (2001-2006), Thai governments were composed of multi-party coalitions of at least five political parties, squabbling over spoils. The military, even when not running the country, made sure they were never left out of their share of the pie.
While militaries in places like Latin America have since reformed, to the extent that a coup d’état is now a story of the past, the Thai military has never come under full civilian control. Following the Black May uprising in 1992, where mass protests against military rule took place for the first time, the military retreated back to the barracks and sought to maintain a low profile. But civilian governments are mindful not to intervene in the military’s internal workings, such as promotions and discretionary budgets. If threatened, the military would strike back – as it did against Thaksin in 2006 and now his sister Yingluck in 2014.
The Thai military’s might is not derived from the power of the barrel of a gun alone, but also from public support. Many Thais continue to view the military as a pillar of order and stability in Thailand. A recent survey by Asia Foundation in 2010 revealed more than 60 percent of the respondents saw the military as an “important institution.” Such a positive attitude towards the men in uniform remains high, despite the failure of the military to resolve political conflicts when it staged a coup in 2006 or manage insurgencies in the deep south, which have led to the death of 6,000 people since the early 2000s. Yet, Thais are raised to see the soldiers as “the fences of our nation” and are grateful when they provide critical emergency response, in times of natural disaster for example.
It’s no surprise that, for some Thais, the coup was a good thing. Coups have always elicited mixed emotions in Thailand. Some see the military as “saviors” and “vanguards” of the Thai nation and would be only happy to see the men in uniform marching down the streets with their tanks, when the country would sink into an abyss. Others would be less enthusiastic about the military’s active role in politics. The military is not just an institution of conflict resolution for some, but also the protector of their much revered monarchy.
A “selfie” with Thai soldiers during a coup suggests the military will continue to be one of the country’s most important political actor for years to come.
Aim Sinpeng is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science, McGill University. She writes widely about Thai politics, Southeast Asia, and Social Media and Protests. For her most recent writing, see www.aimsinpeng.com.